A farmers market is a public and recurring assembly of farmers or their representatives who sell food or agricultural products they produce directly to consumers. In addition, farmers markets may include a variety of other vendors as determined by market management [Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA), 2012a]. Farmers markets are credited with providing a range of benefits from promoting small and midsized farm viability to strengthening communities (Abel et al., 1999; Ross, 2006). Considering these benefits and the growing popularity of locally grown foods (Keeling-Bond et al., 2009; Zepeda and Li, 2006), the increase in the number of farmers markets across the country is not surprising (1755 in 1994 to 7175 in 2011) (USDA, 2012a). The trend is similar in Michigan with the number of farmers markets growing from 90 in 2001 to more than 300 in 2012 (MIFMA, 2012b).
Many new farmers markets are located in low-income communities where residents do not have easy access to fresh and healthy foods. Limited access to nutritious food may be linked to poor diets, increases in obesity, and diet-related diseases (USDA, 2009). However, recent evidence suggests that when low-income individuals have access to retail outlets that provide affordable, nutritious foods, they make healthier food choices and have better health outcomes (Flournoy, 2011). Food security researchers and advocates argue that farmers markets are needed most in these communities as they provide access to nutritious foods that are not available otherwise (Bell and Standish, 2009; Pothukuchi and Thomas, 2004).
Farmers markets, however, are especially vulnerable to failure in low-income communities and therefore present a number of challenges (Fisher, 1999; Project for Public Spaces, 2003). Markets in low-income areas often struggle with high farmer and vendor turnover rates and a general lack of vendor commitment (Alkon, 2008; Fisher, 1999). Fisher (1999) concluded that for farmers markets in low-income areas to be successful, farmers must provide an appropriate mix of product at affordable prices. However, he also noted a “fundamental tension” between farmers earning a fair price and the ability of low-income shoppers to pay such prices. Alkon (2008) reported that the need for farmers to earn a fair price can and sometimes does conflict with a market’s goal to improve food access for low-income shoppers. Thus, to address the need of farmers to earn adequate revenue at farmers markets, market organizers continually seek ways to expand a market’s customer base and increase sales. Recent research indicated that the number of customers had a significant positive influence on vendor participation in farmers markets (Hofmann et al., 2009).
One way to increase the customer base is to introduce new populations, such as food assistance program recipients, to the farmers market. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients can purchase food at farmers markets if EBT is available. EBT is a system that allows recipients of federal food assistance programs to purchase food from an authorized retailer using a benefits card. An EBT card works like a debit card and allows recipients to authorize the transfer of their food assistance benefits from a federal account to a retailer’s account, such as a farmers market or grocery store (Montri et al., 2011). The total value of SNAP sales offers significant revenue to food retailers. In Michigan, for example, SNAP brings $245.6 million of food sales to the state each month (State of Michigan, 2012). In the United States, 44.7 million people, or 13% of the population, used EBT in 2011 to redeem $71.8 billion worth of SNAP benefits (USDA, 2012b). SNAP-eligible food items include food or food products for human use such as breads, meat, dairy products, cereals, seeds, fruit, vegetables, and plants or seeds for use in a home garden to produce food for personal use (USDA, 2012c).
In the past, food stamps were widely accepted in farmers markets. However, most farmers markets discontinued accepting food stamps when the program transitioned to EBT since they were no longer able to accept paper coupons (USDA, 2010a). Instead, EBT requires a point of sale device (POSD) to accept food assistance benefits as payment. Since farmers markets typically operate in temporary or open-air venues, they often lack the infrastructure needed to support a POSD. Recent evidence suggests that many vendors are now dissuaded from accepting SNAP/EBT because of the cost and administrative burdens of purchasing and operating a wireless POSD (MIFMA, unpublished data). As such, food stamp redemptions dropped dramatically in farmers markets between the early 1990s and mid-2000s when the program transitioned to EBT (USDA, 2010a).
A central terminal model EBT program at farmers markets, however, can alleviate much of the burden for individual vendors, increasing their sales especially among clientele who might not otherwise afford fresh produce. Under a centralized system, markets provide a central POSD to accept benefits from all SNAP shoppers. The POSD deducts food assistance benefits from a shopper’s EBT card and in exchange the market issues an equal value in alternative market currency, usually a wooden nickel or paper scrip, that the shopper may use to purchase eligible items from any vendor at the market. Vendors accept the alternative currency like cash and are later reimbursed by the market. Under this system, the market takes responsibility for the costs of operating the POSD and for complying with federal requirements to account for the distribution of federal food assistance benefits. The market also assumes responsibility to reimburse the vendor for their EBT sales occurring at the market (Montri et al., 2011).
Despite growing interest in expanding the number of farmers markets accepting EBT (Buttenheim et al., 2012), little is known about the experience of EBT from the perspective of the actors who implement these programs at farmers markets. The peer reviewed literature on farmers markets has primarily focused on consumer access, nutrition education, and consumer participation in food assistance programs (Anliker et al., 1992; Balsam et al., 1994; Dollahite et al., 2005; Just and Weninger, 1997). At the practitioner level, market organizers and agricultural educators have published how-to guides and case study reports on EBT programs (e.g., Montri et al., 2011; Wasserman et al., 2010). Mino (2012) reported that the administrative burdens of implementing these programs are significant and suggested that not all farmers markets may be candidates for EBT. Yet, the literature offers nothing about farmer experiences with EBT programs at farmers markets. Like market staff, farmers are intimately involved in the EBT redemption process and as vendors they are necessary for the program to function. What is their experience and how does it affect the market?
Accordingly, the objective of this study was to use a case study approach to explore farmers’ attitudes regarding central terminal model EBT programs at selected Michigan farmers markets. Michigan is an appropriate site for this work because, in contrast to most states, there is now substantial experience with EBT at Michigan farmers markets. In 2006, only three Michigan farmers markets were authorized to accept EBT. In 2012, more than 100 farmers markets accepted EBT. Currently, Michigan leads the midwestern United States and ranks third nationwide in the number of farmers markets authorized to accept EBT (Roper, 2012). The majority of these farmers markets (77 of 78 in 2011) use a central terminal model (Segar, 2012). EBT redemptions at Michigan farmers markets have increased exponentially from $15,832 in 2007 to $898,194 in 2011 (Segar, 2012), and Michigan is now fourth in the nation in the total EBT sales that take place at farmers markets (Roper, 2012). As such, Michigan farmers are increasingly familiar with and have experience with EBT redemption at multiple markets.
As a case study, the intention of this work is not to generalize from a sample to the population, but to identify emergent themes that may be important to current efforts to expand EBT programs at farmers markets and for future research. These themes may then be subsequently investigated using sample surveys and appropriate hypothesis testing. Case study sampling does not allow generalization to the larger population of farmers markets or farmer-vendors across the region or country. However, the research design purposely samples across a wide range of farmer experiences. Gaining a better understanding of farmer perceptions and preferences will help researchers and practitioners develop further research, policies, and programs that will work for farmers. Doing so will help improve the functioning of EBT programs at markets and the retention of farmer-vendors at low-income farmers markets. In addition, given that farmers markets are venues for the sale of horticultural products, this work also supports the overall sustainability and profitability of the horticultural industry.
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